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New Species: Future Fish

Companies from opposite sides of the globe bring new farmed species to prospective buyers

By Fiona Robinson
April 01, 2006

Only once in a blue moon is a new seafood species introduced to the U.S. market, but buyers were lucky enough to get two in the past year -Australian barramundi and Kona Kampachi™. Both were on display at last month's International Boston Seafood Show, where thousands of visitors sampled these "fish of the future."

Kampachi is farmed in ocean cages by Kona Blue Water Farms of Kona, Hawaii, and barramundi is raised in an indoor recirculating system by Australis Aquaculture of Turners Falls, Mass.

Both Kampachi and barramundi are meeting demand for a niche product that fits the sustainability bill and doesn't have the stigma of contaminants like PCBs and methylmercury.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at both species and their farming operations.

Australis barramundi

Australis Aquaculture raises barramundi in the largest indoor fish farm in North America. Barramundi, latex calcarifer, hails from Australia's northern tropical waters and is known as a premier fish in its home country. The white, flaky sea bass is described as having a buttery taste and moist, delicate texture.

"It's not too often you have a new product with such a great pedigree and a great story," says Josh Goldman, Australis' U.S. executive director and president of U.S. operations.

That fish story started in 2004, when Australian entrepreneur Stewart Graham contacted Goldman, who is internationally renowned in the aquaculture industry, and hired him as a consultant.

Goldman helped Stewart develop a business plan for Australis' U.S. barramundi farm.

The Australis site was once home to Aquafuture, a hybrid-striped-bass farm that Goldman ran from 1990 to 2002. Prior to that he ran Bioshelters, an indoor recirculating aquaculture system also in Massachusetts, with John Reid. Goldman was working as a consultant until Stewart approached him.

Australis Aquaculture operates a farm and hatchery in Perth, Australia, and completed a successful IPO on the Australian Stock Exchange in August 2004. Australis flies small barramundi fingerlings to the United States, where they're grown to a market size of 1 1/2 to
2 pounds.

The 5-acre farm's annual capacity is 700 tons. An expansion, due for completion in July, will increase production to 1,000 tons and will include a hatchery to produce fingerlings, although some will still be flown in from Australia, says Goldman.

Barramundi is one of the few marine species that naturally produces high levels of omega-3 fatty acids when fed grain-based oils, notes Goldman. The fish meal also contains a byproduct of herring, which is not a targeted meal fishery and puts it on "the good list" in terms of sustainability, says Goldman.

"For someone who has been interested in sustainable aquaculture for so long, it's great to have a product with these attributes." he says.

Chefs in the United States are beginning to sing barramundi's praises.

"Barramundi is a succulent, delicious, sweet and mild-tasting fish that I'm proud to serve at my restaurant," says Jeremy Marshal, owner and head chef at Aquagrill New York.

The farm's first commercial barramundi harvest was introduced to buyers at last year's International Boston Seafood Show, and company executives are now focusing market develop says Goldman.

The fish already is represented by distributors in key markets nationwide. The companies sales breakdowns is 70% foodservice and 30% retail. Australis' product is just entering retail markets in the Northeast, including Metro in Canada and Big Y supermarkets and Whole Foods markets in New England.

Barramundi wholesales for $4 per pound, round weight, with each fish producing a 6-ounce fillet. The fish is available fresh marketed under the Australis brand name. Frozen barramundi is marketed under the Clean Harvest label.

Kona Kampachi

At the opposite side of the United States from Australis sits Kona Blue Water Farms in Kona, Hawaii. The company exhibited at IBSS for the first time to build the brand name of its Kona Kampachi™, Seriola rivoliana, a sashimi-grade version of Hawaiian yellowtail.

Kona Blue was founded in 2001 by two marine biologists, Neil Anthony Sims and Dr. Dale Sarver, both longtime Kona residents. The venture's startup was facilitated by an open-ocean aquaculture leasing law the Hawaii state Legislature passed in 1999, followed by Act 221 in 2001 aimed at increasing investment in local technology companies.

Qualifying under Act 221 helped Kona Blue attract the attention of local and mainland investors, including Cornerstone Holdings, an Aspen, Colo., private-equity investment firm. Cornerstone and other private interests invested $4 million in the business, and Cornerstone investment specialist Michael Wink joined the company in 2005 as CEO.

The company bills itself as the first integrated marine-fish hatchery and state-of-the-art open-ocean fish farm in the United States. While another Hawaii company, Cates International, has an open-ocean moi farm off Kailua, Hawaii, it lacks Kona's onsite hatchery element, says Wink.

The Kampachi fingerlings are grown at Kona Blue's hatchery at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii in Kailua-Kona and then transferred to grow-out cages a half-mile offshore. The cages are a complex underwater mooring grid comprising 14 steel embedment anchors, each 10 feet tall and weighing 7,500 pounds. The anchors secure a system of 12 submerged steel buoys and miles of mooring lines.

The farm has four cages in production now and plans to two more later this year, says Wink. Production stands at approximately 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of whole fish per week since the first commercial harvest in October 2005. Grow-our takes eight to 10 months for a 5-to 7-pound fish, but the company is still testing harvest time and weight.

"We're still learning about the optimal point of harvesting," says Wink.

Kampachi has among the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids of all fish, at approximately 2.95 grams per 100 grams wet weight, compared with the oil-rich Atlantic mackerel, which contains 2.5 grams. Because of its Fat content, Kampachi is prized both as sashimi and in cooked preparations — a great marketing message to upscale chefs, the target audience.

Renowned Pacific Rim chef Roy Yamaguchi has officially endorsed Kona Kampachi. Honolulu chef Alan Wong, chef/owner of Alan Wong's Restaurant, says it's "the next big fish." Bernard Guillas, executive chef of the acclaimed Marine Room in La Jolla Beach, Calif, calls it "an up-and-coming superstar."

For chefs concerned about contaminants in fish, Kona Blue has tested Kampachi at independent labs and found methylmercury and PCB's undetectable.

Kampachi is harvested twice a week and sold fresh. Its retail price of $20 per pound (filleted) limits its market to upscale restaurants specialty retailers like Asian grocers and natural foods stores.

Central Market in Texas carries the fish, as does Uwajimaya in Seattle.

"In the next couple of months we'l1 have a lot more retail customers," says Wink.

"Fish are swimming and goring out there indefinitely. We literally don't have the pressures that wild [species] have in terms of getting to market." he adds.

With overnight shipping, a fish can leave the water in Hawaii and be on a plate on the East Coast about two days later.

Kona Blue may not feel pressure to get the fish out of the water, but it faces a challenging market in introduction. Wink's plan is for Kona Blue to be a $50 million company in five years. But he hasn't lost site of the short term.

"What's clear is, we're setting standard with hatchery production producing healthy, nutritious quality product in an open-ocean grow out. We're nine months to a year from saying, 'We've proven it says Wink.


Editor Fiona Robinson can be e-mailed at FRobinson@divcom.com


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